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Priceless musical instruments are silent victims of Nashville flooding

Facility that stored equipment for country stars such as Taylor Swift, Brad Paisley, Keith Urban and Vince Gill, and housed instruments belonging to Jimi Hendrix, the Who's Peter Townshend and Johnny Cash, spent six days under nine feet of water.

May 13, 2010|By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times
  • TRAGEDY: Guitars dry out in a warehouse.
TRAGEDY: Guitars dry out in a warehouse. (Mark Humphrey / Associated…)

As symbolically devastating as the recent flooding in Nashville was to the home of the historic Grand Ole Opry House, the toll on another building little known outside the city's music community may well have a broader, more lasting impact.

That building is Soundcheck Nashville, a "cartage" facility, where roughly 1,000 musicians, including country stars such as Taylor Swift, Brad Paisley, Keith Urban and Vince Gill, as well as hundreds of the world's most accomplished studio musicians, store their instruments and equipment.

That makes Soundcheck Nashville something of the Fort Knox to the city's music community, one that just spent six days submerged under nine feet of water, damaging millions of dollars' worth of equipment used by musicians on thousands of recordings over the past half-century.

Paisley lost virtually all of the instruments and staging equipment for a new tour he's launching. In addition to its storage facilities in the 160,000 square foot building, Soundcheck Nashville also includes stages where many musicians rehearse.

Urban lost most of his instruments, and had to borrow a guitar to perform on a telethon to raise money for flood victims.

Another major Soundcheck client was the recently opened Musicians Hall of Fame, which stored historic instruments donated by dozens of top players, not only within the country music world, but from rock, R&B, soul and jazz players.

Joe Chambers, founder and chief executive of the Musicians Hall of Fame, which just opened a year ago, is distraught over the losses, but acknowledges that it could have been worse. "So many people lost the pillow they lay their head on at night, much less a guitar. But the fact is, a lot of historical instruments were stored at Soundcheck."

Among those donated to the hall of fame were a Fender Stratocaster that belonged to Jimi Hendrix, a Gibson Les Paul played by the Who's Peter Townshend, and one of Johnny Cash's guitars.

"We had two of Lightning Chance's basses — he's somebody a lot of people don't know about," Chambers said, "He played at the Grand Ole Opry alongside Chet Atkins, Patsy Cline, Hank [Williams] Sr., the Everly Brothers. Both those basses just fell apart. One of them was used on Hank Sr.'s very last recording session — that's the bass that's heard on 'Your Cheatin' Heart.'"

Many high-profile musicians declined to be interviewed for this story, citing those far worse off because they aren't in a financial position to buy new equipment.

"For many of these guys, this is their retirement plan," said keyboardist John Hobbs, a member of Vince Gill's band, among countless others. "It's the equivalent of their 401(k). Those '50s and '60s Strats and Teles, your Martin acoustics, old Gibsons — they've done far better [as financial investments] over the last 20 or 30 years than the stock market."

Soundcheck owner Ben Jumper said clients were responsible for providing their own insurance on equipment kept there, but noted that even those who had some form of content insurance might see their claims rejected unless they also had separate flood insurance. "Flood is a dirty word in the insurance business," Jumper said. "We had minimal flood insurance on Soundcheck, but we've lost millions of dollars worth of instruments and equipment. When they hear the word 'flood' all other insurance coverage goes out the window."

Studio musician Chris Leuzinger took a break from doing triage on equipment at one of a small handful of warehouses where damaged instruments have been moved for assessment.

"It's hard to describe," he said. "A lot of instruments here were used on many hit records out of Nashville and many other cities too. Those instruments are not replaceable."

In-demand session player John Jorgenson, a multi-instrumentalist who toured for seven years with Elton John, lost dozens of vintage instruments and amplifiers — "including many one-of-a-kind made specially for me, many vintage…. All the guitars spent days submerged in water containing diesel fuel and sewage."

Leuzinger noted that the Local 257 of the American Federation of Musicians Union has set up a fund and is soliciting donations to help musicians get instruments to resume working. The Recording Academy also is using its MusiCares philanthropic arm to provide short-term aid to those in need.

"I'd have to say one of the most heartening thing about what's happened is the way musicians who weren't at Soundcheck have been reaching out to other musicians," keyboardist Hobbs said. "I've had half a dozen calls from other keyboard players in town, letting me know I'm welcome to use any of their gear that's needed."

randy.lewis@latimes.com

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